What the hell does sustainable actually mean?
Ok, it means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources,” according to Oxford languages.
But the word is bandied about so often that it’s almost become meaningless. It lets companies and customers alike feel good about the product, without needing to analyse the details of the product’s environmental impact.
In reality, within our complex economies and supply chains, it’s very difficult for a product to be truly “sustainable”. It might be more sustainable than another option, but not the most sustainable of all. For example, it might be made with sustainable materials but be made in a factory powered by fossil fuels and transported across the globe.
That’s why being specific in your copy is so important. It empowers customers to make informed decisions about what they buy, and helps companies avoid inadvertent greenwashing.
Check out these 3 swaps for the word “sustainable”!
Using recycled materials is usually better for the environment than using raw materials. It lengthens the life of existing products and saves them from landfill, preserves finite resources and often requires less energy than raw material extraction. However, it’s not perfect. For example, it might be more eco-friendly for someone to buy a preloved reusable coffee cup than buy a brand new one made of recycled materials. By saying “recycled” rather than “sustainable” you’re giving the customer more information and letting them make their own decisions.
Also, don’t stop at just switching to the word “recycled” – be specific about the percentage of recycled material in the product. Not only is it more honest, you’re actually required to do so according to anti-greenwashing laws.
Again, it’s about being specific. If your servers are powered by solar energy, you should say that rather than describing your product as “sustainable”. Also, according to the green claims code, you should be transparent about anything that cancels out that positive climate solution. So, if your factory is solar powered, but your products are made from plastic (using fossil fuels), then you should include this in a dedicated sustainability portion of your website. In fact, you should then avoid using the claim “solar-powered” on its own, in order to avoid the “halo effect”. This is when a company talks about one thing they do that’s ethical but omit less ethical or sustainable practices. The customer will often then infer that you’re an all-round ethical company. That’s misleading. It’s ok to be a work in progress! Just be transparent with your customers.
This is another great way of being more specific about your sustainability. It’s hard for consumers to live a completely sustainable life, so often they pick one or two areas. So, for example, they might choose to only eat locally-sourced food. Being specific attracts those people and helps them out on their sustainability journey. Plus, it can help open up the conversation with other customers who might not yet know the environmental benefits of locally-sourced food. And hey presto – you’ engaging in interesting and insightful conversations, engaging with your customers and building your authentic brand.
Swerving the “sustainable” trap
The upshot of all this is that it’s often better to scrap the word “sustainable” in favour of being more specific. If you’re looking for support communicating your brand’s eco-friendly efforts and are looking for a sustainability copywriter to help – feel free to get in touch! Whether you’re a new brand writing your sustainability policy from scratch or an established company looking to revamp your copy, I’d love to work with you!